“I’m endlessly obsessed with the stuff that’s just below the surface — sounds that are there but you just need to tease them out a little bit, you know?”
Among a number of other charges, Robin Warren (a.k.a Robin The Fog) is a BBC studio manager for the World Service. As an experimental musician, avid vinyl collector, and sound obsessive, it seems a position at the world’s largest international broadcaster is the perfect calling for him. Over the past few years, not only has he been able to use his workplace as an environment for editing and treating his music, but — perhaps most curiously — he has also used the building as an instrument.
Under his Howlround moniker, Robin released The Ghosts of Bush on the same day the BBC made its last radio transmission from Bush House, which is where the World Service began in 1941. The album is a collection of deeply unsettling “hauntological” soundscapes that explore the acoustics of a historic building through the use of tape manipulation. The project has been very well received, and since then, Warren has explored the potential of two new, but very different buildings, to astounding effect. Howlround also became a duo, performing live shows in and around London, while its founding member became known as the BBC’s “Completely Unofficial One-Man Radiophonic Workshop.”
TMT caught up with Robin last year over coffee somewhere in the center of London, where he talked about the delights of working with tape, childhood catalogs of sound, and the unquestionable importance of the Amen break.
I should start by saying that I’m quite a messy person. Quite all over the shop. When I’m working I need to be very strict with myself about routine and it has to be finished by ‘THEN!’ It is what it is at that stage.
I used to have pieces sat at my computer that I would tinker with for months and never really get anywhere with. I find that a lot of the time when you are working on new material, that the first idea, that first cut, is usually the best. And then the rest of it is just tinkering and finishing it off. So I try and work quite quickly.
You mean to put a limit on how much tinkering you can do?
Exactly. Because otherwise you just end up obsessing with things forever. I was obsessing over Secret Songs of Savamala right until the last minute. I had to run for the bus and I was an hour late and my mate at the mastering studio was like, “You’re an idiot!.”.. And then, when the test pressings came back, again, I obsessed over it, and I was like, “Oh, what if it’s not good enough.” I then resolved never to listen to the album again. That is my new work ethic actually. I’ll try and work very quickly on things and build on spontaneity throughout, but then never listen to the recordings again once you have finished with them. So, The Ghosts of Bush and Secret Songs, I have never listened to since they came out.
But The Ghosts of Bush got a lot of positive press when it was released…
I couldn’t believe it. For something that I wasn’t even going to put out. I was only ever really thinking about a cassette or a download or something, and then suddenly people were going mad for it.
I didn’t think anyone would be interested to begin with. Perhaps that sounds a little disingenuous now, but I honestly didn’t think that people would be that keen. Half the reason for that was because it was the end of an era; it was Bush House, it was the idea of this building closing. Yeah, it was the end of an era, it was a very sad time, and it was a historical moment. That almost certainly helped to push it. Secret Songs of Savamala doesn’t have that; it was part of an arts program, it was made in Belgrade, and I was invited there as part of a commission, but of course it doesn’t have that back story, unless of course you are particularly into the history of Serbian customs houses. But, it was made in the same way, using the same techniques, with a few modifications. Some of it was more digital this time, although all of the recordings are all acoustic. Again, there are no computer effects, no artificial reverb.
The new album certainly sounds as though you are comfortable working within those boundaries you set yourself.
I really hope so, because it’s just what was there when we hit ‘record.’ If you base your work ethic on that action, then that’s it and nothing more, you could end up with a terrible record. I recently did a project for Radio 3, which was called Whirled Service, but the problem with that is that Broadcasting House really isn’t that interesting sonically. For a long time I was really worried that I would have nothing to make…
You found an interesting door handle though, didn’t you?
Yeah, that was a breakthrough. I made hours and hours of recordings for Whirled Service and most of them were pretty mediocre, but again, that’s the rule, you just have to use whatever is there and in that space. If you are making an album about a space, you can’t cheat, so I was very glad because the building wasn’t suited to it. For Secret Songs, the building has been changed since we recorded, it’s had the basement blocked off, and there is some construction in the middle of it, but when we went there it was just a shell…
… Right, with a flooded basement?
Yeah, it was like something out of a Tarkovsky film, it really was. The acoustics were also just amazing. It was all made using a really small digital recorder, about the same size as your phone, and that’s it. What I’m trying to do is go into a space using basic equipment and just using the natural sound of the building to make this strange sound world. I’m endlessly obsessed with the stuff that’s just below the surface — sounds that are there but you just need to tease them out a little bit, you know?
That’s a good place to launch into, because obviously you had some level of personal attachment to the space when you recorded The Ghosts of Bush. What were you doing for the BBC at the time?
Well, I’m a studio manager for the World Service — for the language services mostly. I specialize in programs in everything from Arabic, Swahili, Somali, and a lot of African languages to Kyrgyzstan. So it’s mostly foreign language news transmissions. Occasionally you get to do something fun like an arts thing, but not very often.
As someone who works with sound professionally, then, do you find that you are interested in the aesthetics of language, that you can play with these various broadcasts?
Well, in Bush House we had all of these old fashioned studios, and some of them did look like something out of a Doctor Who set. They were very old fashioned — did you know that it wasn’t until 2005 that the BBC gave up the tape? Until 2005, every studio would have a bank of tape machines sat at the back of the studio, and the studio manager would spool up all of the different items on the program using these machines. Now it’s all done with computers. So as a huge obsessive of the Radiophonic Workshop and musique concrete, I was aware of the role of the tape recorder and I had started mucking about with tape loops, you know, very basic stuff just to see what I could do with them.
How far back are we talking?
The end of 2011 I would say. A friend of mine is a musician and we were making these basic tape loops, which turned into the Earl Grey Whistle Test, which is a collection of demos we made. I don’t know, I think I just always loved the sound of the building. I would love to say it was because I was really interested in the broadcasting that we do, which of course I am, there is no denying that, I am completely obsessed with radio, but it’s just… It has an amazing sound. And at night, when you are wandering around [and] the building is empty, I just used to walk around and whistle, and I used to love the way that the whistle would just swirl around my head. One day I recorded myself whistling on my mobile phone from quite a distance — I put it on one windowsill a way away, and we had some microphones set up in the big drama studio in the basement for another project we had been doing… I had the place to myself for an hour and I held the recording up in front of the microphone and dubbed it onto tape at 15 inches per second and then went into the studio and played it back at 7.5, or 7 inches per second, and suddenly there was this ethereal choir noise coming out of the whistling. So I thought “Oh, OK, I think I could be onto something!” And that’s actually “Fog at 5am.” I knew that the BBC was leaving Bush House and I knew that we wouldn’t have access to all of these studios and tape machines any more — the tape machines… gathering dust, nobody was using them for anything because they were outmoded. The desk in Studio6 was falling apart because nobody was bothering to fix it, and within six months it was going to be ripped out.
I walk down the street and if I hear something I will say, “Oh, that’s a good sound,” and if I have got my recorder on me then I will record it there and then. Anyone who is there has to stand and wait for me… which is totally unsociable.
So you knew you had a set period of time to work with?
Yeah, I knew that. I was also working a lot of night shifts, and because there were so many cuts occurring, we ended up having this couple of hours here and there where there was nothing to do. Obviously you can’t just doze off, and I don’t like sleeping during night shifts. I like to think that I’m doing something useful. So I used to tell the control room that I was down in S6, and I would just lock myself away in there for a couple of hours at a time. Then I would go and do a program for an hour or two, and then I would come back and do another couple of hours. The experience was everything that you hear. I always stress this because I’m worried that people will assume that it’s all effects because nowadays, with things like ProTools, it’s so easy to make anything sound strange — you can blow your nose and make it sound like some sort of Radiophonic master work, it’s so simple now — but I think what Howlround do is to show you how fun it can be to make things complicated again. We have imposed these very strict sets of rules: it’s only the natural sounds of the space, and all other effects are strictly forbidden. I really don’t want people to think that we have just taken recordings and put swathes of reverb on them, or put them through a processor, because we haven’t. The Ghosts of Bush is just made from walking around the building with a recorder — that’s it. There was a weird door handle, and there was a bin that made a squeaky sound when you moved it, but it is just that — it is just taking those sounds and playing them back at different speeds. The only minor addition is that there is a little bit of tape echo, but that’s just created by feeding a sound back into itself, not sort of adding that as an additional effect. But if you use things like that sparingly, you can get this sort of ethereal glow to the sound.
Simon Reynolds called it hauntological; he said it was “the ultimate hauntological artifact,” I think. How do you find that sort of appropriation fits in with what you are trying to achieve?
I’m worried that hauntological has become sort of stigmatized, like trip-hop did in the 90s. I think there was some amazing music that was made that was called “trip-hop,” but I think some people poo- poo’d the music because of the label. I mean, I was proud that Simon Reynolds would say anything about my music, let alone that it’s the ultimate hauntological artifact; I couldn’t stop smiling for about a week after that. I think there is a range of amazing music that’s been made under the ‘hauntological’ banner, whether or not people who make it wish to call themselves ‘hauntologists’ or not, I don’t know. Someone at work started calling me the “BBC’s resident hauntologist” and I thought that was really sweet, but you will notice on my Twitter profile it’s in inverted commas, because I’m not sure what I think of it. I’m still just proud that people are paying attention to my music and including it in with some amazing material. I’m very proud to have been called a hauntologist, but I don’t know if it’s the term I would refer to myself as. It’s like with dubstep. Apparently you call it “bass music” now. So you do get to this stage of not knowing what to call anything. I should also say that I’m promoting the records singlehandedly, so whatever people want to call it — go ahead.
How long had you been working at Bush House before you recorded the album?
It would have been about three-and-a-half years — so I was a relative newcomer. I was one of the last people through the door.
But even with three-and-a-half years, you are there every day and night by the sound of things. You familiarized yourself with the space, you created a lot of memories there… So how do you go about, not cataloging it, but selecting certain areas to record; rooms, or stairwells or hallways…
Well, at the World Service, you look at your daily timetable and find that you are doing, say, a Somali program at 23:00, in a certain studio, and then you are doing an Afghan program in another studio later on. So, you would work within about 20 studios fairly regularly. And if you use them a lot, then you become familiar and can say, “Well, I know S5 has a really nice kind of creak on its door” and, “I know that S21 has a thing on its desk that when you hit it it makes a kind of springy noise.”